12th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Divine Providence and the Harrowing of Hell

SCRIPTURES & ART: Fear God, trust in Jesus and proclaim him to others.

Fra Angelico, “The Harrowing of Hell,” ca. 1441-1442
Fra Angelico, “The Harrowing of Hell,” ca. 1441-1442 (photo: Public Domain)

Today’s Gospel might be called the Gospel of the Three P’s: Perspective, Providence and Profession. 

God constantly assures us to “fear” no one, to fear not. People are naturally afraid of danger. We properly recoil from what we perceive as threats. 

But Jesus wants us to put threats (and their accompanying fears) into proper perspective. As St. John will remind us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love” (1 John 4:18). 

What we must really fear is losing God. If we have God, we have everything — at least everything essential. If we don’t, we have nothing. That is why Jesus reminds us, “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.”

These are not empty words from Jesus. First of all, Jesus’ “Word” is ever fruitful; God’s Word never fails (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus does not tell us “nice things” just to fill the space.

These would not have been empty words for the Apostles. By the time Matthew is writing his Gospel, martyrdom was already not an unknown thing among Christians. Nor would Jesus have been passing off empty words: His own Passion is always looming, and the Man who entered Gethsemane was humanly fearful enough to sweat blood. 

Still, Jesus tells us to keep things in perspective. What really matters? What ultimately doesn’t? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” (Mark 8:36).

Perspective also demands that we reckon with the fact that nothing is hidden from God. Catholics tell their children that “God sees everything,” and that’s true. We can assert no “right to privacy” before God; there is no part of our lives that can be fenced off from accountability before God. It’s not that God does not respect us. He does. And that’s why he once reminded us that it is the one who does evil that “loves darkness instead of light,” hating it “for fear their deeds will be exposed” (John 3:19-21). 

But God does not leave us to our own devices. Just as God sees what we do, he also sees what befalls us and — while sometimes mere human reason may challenge it — God “makes all things work for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). This is what Catholics call “Providence.”

Alas, many contemporary Christians’ understanding or awareness of Providence is impoverished. One reason may be our post-Enlightenment, especially Anglo-American heritage: consciously or not, deism — with its caricature of a “god” absent from and uninterested in a world he once wound up like a clock and then left — still affects us. The idea that God is actively engaged in that world — down to counting the hairs of our heads — perhaps gains some people’s notional assent, but do we really believe God is more active than Rogaine?

Another reason our appreciation of Providence is attenuated goes back further, to the Garden of Eden and the distrust Satan sowed between man and God. Ever since the sneaky snake insinuated, “Did God really say …” has man been tempted to ignore God’s prohibitions and doubt his assurances. Compounded by guilt, we ask: “Does God really care about me?” Today’s Gospel answers that question: yes.

In that sense, St. Faustina Kowalska is very much a saint for our day because the message of Divine Mercy — “Jesus, I trust in you” — is very much the message our world needs if it is to believe Providence is more than a city in Rhode Island.

Shored up in trust that God cares for us and sustains us in what is essential — our salvation (which is, after all, his being with us forever) — the Gospel concludes with the last “P” — proclamation. Be ready to “acknowledge” Christ before others, even those who don’t want to know him or you. God is faithful: acknowledging him means his acknowledging us. That’s why St. Paul warns us to focus on our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13), not because God will waver but because we can. Which is why we need to pray with even greater confidence: “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Today’s Gospel is exceedingly rich, but its teaching also doesn’t readily lend itself to specific religious art. For that, I’ll turn to the Second Reading.

Today’s reading from Romans focuses on the relationship between the First and Second Adam. (In the reformed lectionary, or book of readings, the First Reading and Gospel usually connect, while the Second Reading often is a continuous reading of one of the New Testament epistles. That’s especially true of Paul’s Great Epistles, of which Romans is probably the premier example).

St. Paul tells us that sin entered the world through Adam because we are all related through a common humanity. As devastating as sin is — its fruit is death — it can never rival God’s generosity. God’s love will never be outdone by man’s (or the devil’s) hatred: “The gift is not like the transgression.” If man through Adam brought sin into the world, the God-man Christ brought freedom from sin not just into human life now but even through the redemption of those who awaited God’s Promise in hope. 

That is what we speak of when the Apostle’s Creed speaks of Christ “descending into hell,” i.e., into the limbo of those awaiting Christ’s redemption. (For those who want more, see sections 631-636 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.)

The great medieval artist Fra Angelico, in a fresco in St. Mark’s Museum in Venice, depicts the moment of the “harrowing of hell.” This work might be more appropriate for Holy Saturday, but it also fits today’s Second Reading, with its emphasis on the surpassing goodness of the gift of the Second Adam over the sinful bequest of the First.) Jesus, triumphant over death with the banner of his cross in his hand, breaks open the gates of death and hell to lead forth from the darkness of limbo Adam, the patriarchs, and those who put faith in God’s Promise. Note one devil scowling off on the left (his proper side) while another lies beneath the door he hoped to barricade against the God-Man. Limbo, unlike hell proper, is not depicted with fiery punishments, but its barren rock befits the sterility of a lack of charity and love, neither of which could be animated apart from Christ and his life-giving Spirit.